By Malie Hudson     6/13/2017

In 2018, Worldwide Marriage Encounter will celebrate its 50th anniversary of ministering to couples in the United States through its Marriage Encounter Weekends.

Marriage Encounter is designed for married couples that want to learn new skills and take their marriage to the next level.

“It’s for good marriages that want to become great marriages,” said Mike Bergler, who with his wife Lisa is one of several coordinators for Marriage Encounter Weekends in Orange County.

Marriage Encounter was founded in Spain by Father Gabriel Calvo in 1952. It began as a series of conferences for married couples and focused on developing an honest relationship within marriage and living out the Sacrament of Marriage. By 1968, 50 couples and 29 priests were presenting Weekends in the U.S. and finally by December 1971, the program reached the West Coast.

This year in Orange County, Marriage Encounter has expanded to offer six weekend sessions. The retreats held earlier this year had approximately 20 couples registered for each session.

“It has been an amazing gift to the Diocese of Orange and has truly built up many marriages, which in turn has built up our families,” said Michael Donaldson, director of the Office of Pastoral Care for Families in All Stages.

The retreat is open to couples from all faiths and also to priests, seminarians and religious sisters.

It is not designed for couples in troubled marriages. During the application screening process, coordinators will typically refer these couples to other programs better suited for their needs.

Just three weekends are left this year and are scheduled in Fullerton in July and in Tustin/Santa Ana in September and November. The session in July is mostly for couples that want to participate in the program but need to return home at night to care for their children.

The weekend covers topics such as personality styles that focus on how couples relate to their spouse, marriage in today’s world, listening exercises and in-depth communication, which includes topics that couples typically avoid. There is also time set aside for spouses to talk privately with each other and that takes place in their hotel room.

“Couples don’t talk about money, sex or separation by death as much as they should,” said Mike Bergler.

“We go to areas that are very sensitive and we give them tools to dialogue on these areas without judgment or placing blame,” said his wife, Lisa. “We give them tools they can take home so that they can continue to use this method of communication. We want them to continue the good work they started on the weekend. We give them ideas on how to use it when they get home because during the weekend they really are transformed so we’re sending them back out into the world. They have had this beautiful transformation but sadly the world hasn’t.”

Manuel Chavez and his wife Jazmin attended a Marriage Encounter last November. The couple from St. Cecilia Parish in Tustin were married in 2010.

“We learned how to effectively communicate,” said Manuel Chavez. “I think prior to it there was just talking, but the communication that we learned was to also listen and not place judgment while listening.”

Katie Bolanos and her husband Jon attended the retreat last summer. The couple from St. Norbert Parish in Orange went from parents of zero to parents of three children in the course of a year. She and her husband have been married since 2009 and are expecting their fourth child by the end of this summer.

“We didn’t have any red flags in our marriage but we felt like we could focus more on us. So much of our marriage is focused on raising our little ones,” said Katie Bolanos. “We have better communication now. We practice something that Marriage Encounter taught us which is called daily dialogue. During the day we each write an answer about our relationship, which is something that’s not necessarily child focused. At night, we come together and share our answers with each other. It gives us an opportunity to talk about something other than the schedule or the kids or what’s for dinner. It’s kind of feels like we’re dating again in a sense.”

After the weekend is over, couples continue to stay in touch through monthly sharing and fellowship, typically held at a beach bonfire, a baseball game, or park. Kids are welcomed to these events and Lisa Bergler says it has been a wonderful way for the children to also build friendships.

“In every Marriage Encounter weekend, there are miracles,” said Father Perry McCoy, who has been involved in the Marriage Encounter program for over 20 years. “The miracle is the rediscovery of their commitment to each other.”

To register for a Marriage Encounter Weekend, visit ocwwme.org/index.php.